Not So Average Joe’s…

I started hearing about Blue Collar Joe’s a couple of years ago and though my interest was piqued, I had not had the occasion for a visit to this smorgasbord of gourmet doughnuts. That all changed with the new Uptown Joe’s location in the Patrick Henry Hotel.

There is a very homey, community feel as you enter the establishment. There are comfy chairs with a little table between them, lots of nooks to slide into if you are there to work or just escape, and a lovely aroma of fresh brewed coffee wafting through the air. The staff is incredibly friendly and humble. They waited patiently as I took FOREVER to pick out my donuts. I have heard that the selection is not as good as the Daleville location, but it was far better than anything I’ve seen in the Roanoke area.

I ordered up a dozen including s’mores, butterfinger, pumpkin crunch and black forest, blueberry pancake breakfast and banana pudding. In addition to the fabulous doughnut extravaganza, I ordered a chai tea latte to see how their barista chops measured up. The chai was delicious- slightly spicy, piping hot, and just a glazing of frothed milk. I like when a chai has discernible ginger and cardamom and this one certainly did. The counter servers thanked me profusely for coming in and provided me with a take-out menu for any future needs. I can’t say enough about what good service it was- friendly, gracious and quick.

I made my way home to let the fam try out the wares. They were a rousing success. My husband loves anything banana- pie, pudding, ice cream. Imagine his immense pleasure at finding a little pillow of heaven that was filled with all of his favorite flavors. He heartily endorses the banana pudding doughnut. Our children, chocolate freaks that they are, tore up the black forest and s’mores doughnuts. Both were also resounding successes. I savored the blueberry pancake breakfast. I love a bite that has the perfect balance of savory and sweet and this did. It was a dense blueberry cake doughnut glazed with a maple syrup anglaise and topped with crumbled bacon- not baco bits, but real bacon. It was divine. Not quite Carol Lee’s in Blacksburg, but pretty awesome. We will be returning!

Uptown Joe's on Urbanspoon

Hot Time in Roanoke

A new hot spot has opened in Roanoke, and I for one, am excited! Habana Cafe, located in the newly renovated City Market Building, offers a tasty selection of Cuban food and a family atmosphere that invites a fun evening to be had by all.

They have just recently extended their dinner hours to accommodate diners past 7 p.m. and they have added beer and wine to their offerings. We had tried to check this little gem out a couple of times before, but could never get there before closing, so we were happily surprised on a recent Friday night visit. It is definitely still in the beginning organization phase as evidenced by the haphazard seating and table-wait system. We entered the restaurant to a lively crowd that looked like they were waiting for a table. There was no host or wait list, but the owner came over and greeted us and acknowledged our need for a table. We tried to give our name and party number but that was ignored. We sat at the bar for a little while and finally flagged a server down to order a drink while we were waiting. She took our order but never returned. Eventually another server came up to us to take a drink order, but she misunderstood what we had ordered. The wait was rather long for a table since seating is sparse, but all patrons seemed happy and enjoying themselves. There were many large families with multiple generations in the dining room. Eventually we got a table and some menus. If you can get past this disorganization in the beginning, you are in for a treat.

The owner came over to our table and greeted us again and took a drink order. He was very conciliatory about our wait and extremely friendly. He also made the rounds to other tables- checking on customers, sparking conversations with groups and generally creating the community relations that a good owner should  be conscious of. The same server from the bar waited on us. She was very friendly, but maybe a little new to English. She did not seem to understand that we were ordering an appetizer and then our dinners. We ordered the shrimp ceviche to start and gave her our dinner order but asked them to come out separately. This did not end up being the case. We waited quite a while and then our entrees arrived. We told the server then that we would skip the ceviche because dinner was here. She was very apologetic and then ended up bringing it out anyway on the house. This was where the mistakes ended.

The food was delicious. The long-awaited ceviche was fresh, tart and perfectly done. It wasn’t overly citrusy, was obviously fresh and a great palate awakener. We had ordered a smattering of items from the menu to get a feel for the food. One of the entrees was a serving of roasted pork, black beans and rice, plantains and yucca. The yucca was the star! It had a sumptuous texture and a rich mojo marinade…really good! The black beans and rice were not the usual throwaway they can be. The beans had been simmered with hunks of pork and cumin. The plantains were huge! They had obviously been mashed and then formed into tasty cakes. The pork also had a zesty mojo flavor and succulent texture. That plate was a hit at our table. The next plate was a traditional sandwich Cubano. The bread was right. That may seem a strange statement, but so often Cuban sandwiches come on non-traditional bread that does not press properly and is too doughy. This bread was right. Inside was a layering of ham, roasted pork, spicy mustard, cheese and pickles. I will say that it  needed a little kick. I like my Cuban sandwiches to have that zest of mustard and sharpness of pickle to bring out the meat, but it seemed very tame in this instantiation. It was an easy remedy though with a hit of house hot sauce. The Ropa Vieja came in a similar set-up as the pork as we ordered the same side items. It was as good a version of Ropa Vieja as I have had since leaving Florida.

What happened next is what made this a “Hot Time in Roanoke.” Two gentleman that had been eating at the bar with their families when we arrived set up in the corner with some bongos and microphones. They introduced themselves and gave a shout out to the owner for a Happy Birthday and the place erupted in applause. Then the magic began as they beat on the drums and began singing. The music was a mix of African Tribal beats and Salsa. People at the tables began swaying to the music and one of the servers set her tray down and began salsa dancing. It was such a fun and relaxed atmosphere that we forgot we were finished with our dinners and got caught up in the revelry. Surprisingly, it was not too loud for the small space and everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves. It was the most entertaining Friday night in Downtown Roanoke in quite some time.

Habana Cafe is still finding its footing, but if it can make it past the growing pains, I think it will be a fabulous addition to the Downtown scene. My advice: be patient with them and you will be in for some delicious food and a rousing good time!

Habana Cafe on Urbanspoon

Found: Fresh Beets!

So, in my last post I lamented the lack of fresh beets during a visit to Pomegranate, but I am happy to report I found them at Local Roots Cafe in the Grandin neighborhood of Roanoke. I have visited this establishment a few times but have been hesitant to write about it because it has never been spectacularly bad or good. I have since changed my mind. I now heartily suggest giving this chic eatery a try.

It was my birthday a couple of weeks ago and my gift is always an evening of no cooking, among other goodies. Since it is my day to be queen, I also get to decide where we go on my non-cooking night. Not finding anything new or interesting to give a whirl in Roanoke, I decided we would give Local Roots another try. The last time we went, the food had been somewhat mediocre and the service was slow, but I am always up for giving places second chances when the sins are minor. So we journeyed down to Grandin for the evening. I made sure to ask for a “warm” table since their storefront is all window. We got a cozy booth across from the bar that had a nice vantage point to see the happenings in the kitchen and the goings-on in the dining room. The menu was MUCH better this time- more well-rounded with delectable sounding bites, a reasonable and eclectic wine list, just better!

We started with an order of mussels with pancetta, an arugula salad with goat cheese and beets, and a bottle of a Spanish Grenacha. We watched the food coming out of the kitchen as we waited and it made us hungry for our impending meal. The mussels arrived in a stout-sized bowl overflowing with yumminess. There was a selection of different homemade breads surrounding the bowl and oodles of fresh green-tipped mussels inside. The broth was heavenly. It was chocked full of pancetta, fresh tomatoes, garlic, fresh herbs and balanced seasoning. They were the best mussels I have partaken of in recent memory. Accompanying the mussels was the salad. The arugula was beautiful and peppery. It was lightly dressed with a raspberry smear on the side of the plate. The goat cheese was a little lacking. I felt like that was the one dark spot. A little more goat cheese would have given that perfect pungency to set off the rest of the salad. But I will tell you what was not lacking: BEETS. They were golden and garnet hunks of perfection. Tenderly toasted, juicy, and FRESH! The salad and mussels set high expectations for what was to come.

Our next course consisted of succulent duck served with sunchoke, couscous, asian pear and szechuan pepper jus and a pork porterhouse served with shitake mushrooms, green cabbage and wood-fired potatoes. Both plates were delicious, but the duck far exceeded the pork. Service was very timely and attentive. Everything was so good we decided to indulge in dessert and port.

The dessserts are not as homey as the rest of the meal. It seemed this was where the chef was trying to flex his gastromolecular muscles. We ordered a chocolate dish that was a freeze dried shell filled with peanut powder and a cream. We also ordered a pear dessert that was a riff on a cobbler. Neither was spectacular, but not terrible either. The Port on the other hand was magnificent. I just think you can’t go wrong with a 20 year Tawny to finish off any meal.

Overall, the meal was wonderful and we actually went back the very next weekend for another round of mussels and beets as a pre-movie appetizer. It is nice to see an independent, locally-sourced restaurant doing things well. We will definitely go back!

Local Roots Restaurant on Urbanspoon

For $8 I expected fresh beets….

It’s been a while since I have blogged about anything local, but a recent trip to Pomegranate Restaurant and Gathering Place demands a post! For some time my husband and I had been longing to try this supposed hidden gem out in Troutville and last Friday night presented a ripe opportunity, unfortunately. Reservations for the dining room were easy to obtain and we requested a warm table based on some other reviews commenting on the chilly atmosphere.

After about an hour drive from our home, we arrived at Pomegranate. The building looked kichy with its haphazard Christmas lights on boldly painted exterior. There was a beautiful fountain on the deck of the entrance; it was overall inviting and piqued my interest. We proceeded in hopeful for the evening’s fare. The interior is a bold mustard color adorned with lots of local art. I love it when restaurants choose to showcase artists from the region; it gives a slice of the culture and supports artists. The dining room was quite long and very cold. There was no visible heating source and other than the art seemed very stark. We were one of 3 tables at 7 p.m. on a Friday night, not a good sign to start off. There had been a group of people smoking outside at the entrance and obviously they were a part of the much more popular “gathering room,” or bar in my vernacular. The music coming from the room was actually a nice jazz sound, but hard to hear over the people.

The service was disjointed. A gentleman came to our table first to bring us water and a wine menu. He seemed very knowledgeable about the wine menu and excited to make a recommendation. Our server was a younger girl and she actually took the wine and appetizer order. Given that there were only 3 tables, we figured service would be quick. We were wrong. The wine took at least 15 minutes to come out and the appetizers took about 30 minutes. We did not order anything crazy preparation-wise. We ordered the beet and goat cheese salad, pork tacos and and the pork ragout. All of these were part of the small plate tapas menu. The title of my post should give an idea of how we fared with the food once it arrived. The beet salad was a portion of arugula with this lumpy purplish-pink stuff on top of it and beets that were obviously out of a can. The mysterious topping on the salad was the goat cheese, walnuts and dressing blended together. It was not tasty and the beets had that metallic, not fresh flavor. We then moved on to the pork tacos. The meat was tender, but completely flavorless. Nothing spectacular, no redeeming salsa or interesting toppings, just pulled pork slapped in a tortilla. The ragout was the best thing we had all night. The pork-same as what was in the tacos, was layered into a rich and hearty stew that had good seasoning. Not amazing, but definitely the best thing we ate at Pomegranate.

The nail in the coffin came with the entree which again took a ridiculously long time to arrive. We ordered the cioppino. This is sort of my husband’s and my swing dish. A good cioppino can save a restaurant in my mind, a bad one seals its fate. I love the sumptuous, tangy flavor of a well-prepared fisherman stew. Luscious chunks of fresh seafood swimming in that not-too-thick broth with little potatoes and a hint of zest. We have tried cioppino lots of places, but only found a few that were worthy. This was not. In fact I’m not sure you could even call it cioppino. It was a terrine filled with thick buttery, garlic broth with seafood. There were some very cute little diced yukon gold potatoes, but it had the flavor of a scampi, not a cioppino. There was no tomato anywhere in the concoction and the broth was so thick and viscous that you could not eat more than a few bites. Even the seafood lost its flavor standing up to the sauce. Needless to say, we did not finish it and skipped dessert.

Pomegranate is not an experience we will repeat. It failed on many fronts from service, to room temperature, to food, to price. The building has the potential to be something interesting, but it needs cozying-up, it needs some warmth and it needs some good food served in a timely and friendly manner. And it needs to serve fresh beets!

Pomegranate Restaurant & Gathering Place on Urbanspoon

Rick Bayless is Top Chef!!

It has been some time and I have no explanation except, life has gotten in the way. I just got back from Chicago- one of the greatest cities I have ever spent time in. I went for the National Writing Project Annual Meeting and to present (gasp now) at NCTE’s Annual Convention. Nerves were on high, but I was more than excited about the food scene in Chicago. Mostly because of the 3 Bayless restaurant hotspots.

My husband being the planning, diligent, god-like man that he is, tried to get us a reservation at Frontera Grill, but to no avail. They were booked way out so we decided to go and wait for a table- probably not a good idea unless you have 3 hours to spare tightly crammed into the tiny bar area. Next door to Frontera is Bayliss’ less fancy sister XOCO. It is a walk up line with limited seating. My group decided to give it a try since we were famished; it was amazing!

We sidled up to the line and the most gracious, knowledgeable manager came over to us in line to get us a drink while we waited and answer any questions we had. He helped us understand how to order and what were the do-not-miss items. It helped that he was an English major also 🙂

My husband and I decided to do our usual routine: order a couple of items and eat lover’s style. We ordered a Torta Cubana, Torta Choriqueso, Carnitas Caldo, and a black and white flan for dessert. Wow, did we go right! It was alot of food and one couple could definitely split one torta and one caldo, but it was all delicious. Our dining partners ordered the Pork Belly Caldo and it was the most perfectly prepared pork belly I have ever experienced. Up until this point, pork belly had come as gelatinous globules, not crispy enough on the outside, too mushy on the inside- not delectable. This was perfectly crispy on the outside, gently smooth on the inside, portions of pork belly floating amidst rich broth, pickled jalapenos, earthy mushrooms, avocado, crispy noodles and a hint of lime. It was a wow dining moment for me and everything I had expected from  a Bayless establishment.

The prices were extremely reasonable and the atmosphere was boisterous and lively. The staff was attentive and helpful. Ingredients are touted as locally sourced. It was the best, hands-down dining I experienced in Chicago. Go hungry!

XOCO on Urbanspoon

Twisted Farm Food

Twisted Farm Food…that is the tagline for one of the best breakfasts I have had recently. Hash House a Go Go is a place of mythic portions and delectable combinations, all served by some of the most ninja-esque waitstaff in Las Vegas. I am still dreaming about it!

My husband and I decided we wanted to hike Red Rock Canyon while we were in Vegas. I know, I know 102 degrees by 10 a.m., riled up snakes and scorpions, rock scrambling, all common sense factors raging against this decision, but common sense did not prevail, thankfully. It was blistering weather, but the canyon was absolutely breathtaking! The colors and texture of the rocks seemed almost like a painting, and after many years of Bono obsession, I got up close and personal with a real Joshua Tree. We did not actually attempt a full blown trail our first time out, instead we took the scenic drive route and stopped at the various points where short trails into the canyons were accessible. This was no small feat though, each trail covered real backpacking style hiking and a great deal of elevation. It took us about four hours and that was enough for one day.

Later in the week, we ventured out again set on hiking the trail that had the Native American petroglyphs and pictographs. We started earlier and this made all the difference. It was still hot, but not unbearable. The petroglyphs and pictographs were worth it. To be in the presence of all that history in its native form, untouched was awe-inspiring. The light was also different in the early part of the day. It was crystal clear and the colors were really vibrant; it is almost like the as the heat of the day sets in, the colors become more hazy and muted.

After all this activity, we had worked up an appetite and were in for some “twisted farm food.” we packed up and made way for Hash House a Go Go. The exterior of the restaurant has a very rustic, almost unfinished barn feel to it, and that carries on inside the restaurant. The ceilings are unfinished barn board, and the walls are quilted steel. Even the flower vases contain fresh wheat straws.

Our server, dressed in Dickies and boots, made his way over as soon as we sat. We had arrived in time for the “Wake Up Late Breakfast” menu. It was not full breakfast, but enough offerings to find something tasty. The coffee the server brought was rich and full-bodied with what tasted like a chicory undertone. It was some of the best we had in Vegas. We had been warned about the monstrous portions, but we through caution to the wind and ordered two entrees: Chorizo Hash and Eggs, and Griddled Banana French Toast.

As we were waiting for our food, we got to see the food coming to the tables around us. I’ll admit, we were a little frightened. The burgers were the size two hands put together and stacked at least 10 inches high. In fact, many people were taking pictures of their food, it was that astounding. Our food arrived as we were salivating over another customer’s fresh corned beef hash. It came in a full-on cast iron skillet piled high with eggs, peppers, chorizo, onions, and cheddar. The other plate had four of the biggest pieces of french toast I have ever seen. They were topped with a split and caramelized banana. It was impressive. In addition to this largess, were two fluffy, homemade biscuits and house-made peach preserves.

The french toast was tremendous. It had that nice crispness on the outside and was gooey soft on the inside. The banana was the perfect counterpoint with its deep brown sugar caramel and warm, soft texture. The hash was amazing. Sometimes chorizo can be greasy, not this time. It was tender and spicy. The eggs were perfectly cooked and the chiles had enough heat to leave that warmth in the back of your throat. So good! The biscuits were the perfect finish. Light and fluffy, they contrasted nicely with the fresh churned butter and sweet peach preserves. Throughout this food extravaganza, we wanted for nothing. Our server, with deft handiwork, cleared dirty plates, refilled near empty glasses and coffee mugs, checked back often but not obtrusively. We did not even notice when he brought new silverware or cleared small plates; he was that good, and they all were. I was really impressed when an older lady at a nearby table was having trouble ordering in English and the server switched over to Spanish to facilitate her order. It was effortless much like everything else had gone since we arrived.

More than sated, we paid our bill, left a ridiculous tip, and filed this place as one of the “must do’s” in Vegas. Great atmosphere, tremendous food, and silken service- I still dream about it!

Hash House a Go Go on Urbanspoon

Wine Angels

My husband and I knew ahead of time that a visit to Vegas would not be complete without a visit to the Wine Angels at Aureole. We were looking forward to seeing them harnass up and fly to retrieve our bottle of wine from the skyscraper-style wine rack enclosed in a glass cage. I’m not sure what it takes to be one of these angels, but I would be all in!

Aureole is located in the Mandalay Bay resort. Mandalay Bay is opulent and boasts some great attractions and restaurants. We had some time to kill so we ventured over to the Shark Reef. Live sharks, huge aquarium how could we miss it? As we made our way to the Shark Reef, we passed Hubert Keller’s Fleur and Susan Feniger’s Border Grill. I used to watch Two Hot Tamales when the Food Network was still about great cooking shows and respected the women’s approach to mexican food. Hubert Keller, what can you say? The man is a consummate master. Needless to say, we were entranced into stopping for a drink and never made it to the Shark Tank.

Our dinner reservation loomed, so we tabbed out and proceeded to Aureole. As we approached, a Wine Angel was in flight; it was an awesome spectacle! Excited, we made our way to the dining room. We had a wonderful table right by the window and in full view of the wine cage. Our server showed up and introduced me to the coolest way to order wine I have seen yet. We were handed a device that resembled an Ipad and a stylus. The wine list was completely categorized on the tablet computer;we scrolled through varietals and regions to find what we wanted. We chose the Laetitia Pinot Noir, a personal favorite. Our order was sent to the bar and the wine angel harnassed up for her flight. It was all very techno-cool and pretty efficient. This was not the end of cool factors in respect to wine though. Aureole has a sommelier, a real one. She had a station set up and our bottle, along with others, were brought to her. She uncorked our wine, sniffed it, and poured a small taste to test it. At first I was thinking, “Hey that’s my wine to taste,” but that quickly changed to “I want your job!” She explained when she brought our bottle over that it is always good policy to get a couple of testers on a bottle to be sure of the quality. While she was at our table a man magically appeared with the largest bread selection basket I have ever seen. My husband stepped out of his comfort zone and ordered the pretzel roll; I stuck with honey wheat.

Just as the bread man (for lack of a better name) and the sommelier departed, a server appeared to explain the menu. There was a prix fixe option, a wine tasting menu, and an ala carte option. We went for ala carte so we would not be restricted by the menu offerings and he left us with the ala carte menu to peruse. Just a few moments later, another server arrived to fill water and ask us if we had any questions about the menu offerings. We went ahead and placed an appetizer order for the Peruvian Ceviche. I’m a sucker for a good ceviche- tangy, fresh, slighlty spicy, yum!

At this point, I began to notice the fluidity of the servers. All seemed to be waiting on all the tables. If there was a plate, they snagged it, if there was an empty glass, it was swiftly refilled, and food was coming from all different directions. They were working like a machine. In fact, our ceviche arrived via a server we had not seen yet. It was almost all that I imagined it to be, almost. The ceviche itself was delicious. It had a nice acid to it, the scallops and fish were firm, and it was all served atop a delicate meyer lemon sauce. The only missing element for me was popcorn. I love the textural element of adding fresh, unseasoned popcorn to the side of ceviche, and I believe it is a traditional pairing with Peruvian Ceviche, but I could be wrong. I missed it, but not much because the ceviche was so expertly prepared.

The server that took our appetizer order then returned and took our dinner order. We decided on the Ahi Tuna Loin and the New York Strip. I know kind of trite, but we were craving some tuna and without the duck or lamb available, we settled on NY Strip. This is my favorite cut of steak; it has great flavor and generally does not disappoint. As our wine glasses were being refilled, my husband was seeking the bread man, trying to make eye contact. When he finds something he likes, he sticks with it and the pretzel roll was on his radar. They locked eyes across the crowded dining room and a fresh, warm pretzel roll was delivered to his waiting plate.

Not long after, our entrees arrived. The tuna was modest and slightly underwhelming. It was cooked perfectly, just flashed as we had asked for. The individual items paired with the tuna were quite good, but together they seemed disconnected. It was served over a warm potato gratin which by itself was rich and sumptuous, but with the near raw tuna, did not quite jibe. Their was also a grape verjus on the plate. Tjis had a delicate flavor that went well with the tuna, but was lost amongst the cheesy potato concoction. It was also a fairly dimimutive portion for a hefty $38 price tag. The New York Strip was a more hefty portion, in line with a dinner entree. It was served with ratatouille, foccacia and rosemary pesto. Let me say, the ratatouille was some of the best I have ever tasted. i was transported to that moment in the Disney movie named after this dish when the food critic took his first bite and immediately became a child; it was that good! Unfortunately, the rest of the plate did not live up to the stellar ratatouille. The steak was well-cooked but completely devoid of flavor. I know a discussion of salt and pepper is gauche, but this steak was screaming for it. In fact we were glad we had the pretzel roll because it added some much needed seasoning to most of the food. The foccaccia was also a miss. It ended up being just a dry piece of bread under the steak, completely unnecessary and unwieldy. At $40 per entree, I was not overly impressed with the food.

We persevered though and went for dessert since they have an in-house pastry chef who makes her own chocolates. We went with Megan’s Dessert Sampler. It consisted of a lemon/lime poundcake, vanilla bean creme brulee, chocolate molten cake, and mocha brownie. What we did not know at the time was that an array of sorbets and chocolates come complimentary with dinner. Needless to say, it was a table full of dessert when everything arrived. I had high hopes for the sampler, but the only truly delicious item on the platter was the poundcake. It had a refreshing flavor and that dense moistness that poundcake is famous for. We also ordered a glass of Sauternes and a glass of 20 year twany port. Normally port comes in a small glass, but at Aureole it comes in a full-on wine glass filled 3/4 full. It was the best part of dessert!

On the whole, Aureole was fun. We enjoyed the spectacle of the wine angels and the service was deft. The food was a disappointment and pretty pricey. I probably would not repeat the whole dinner experience, but they do have a nice lounge area directly across from the wine cage and in full view of the angels as they ascend that would be a fabulous place to get a glass of wine and gain access to the best parts of Aureole, the service and the angels.

Aureole (Mandalay Bay) on Urbanspoon

Vegas Baby

We landed in Las Vegas yesterday and have already had our first Elvis siting. My husband and I have come to Sin City for a conference, but we intend to lap up all of the good eats and amazing hiking available. We checked into our hotel, Red Rocks Canyon Resort, and decided to stay actually in the resort for dinner so that we could explore all the hotel has to offer. After peeking at the menus of all the restaurants on site, we decided on the Yard House. They boast the world’s largest draft beer selection; we were all in.

There was no wait and we actually scored a high top table with a great view. The restaurant was bustling with busy servers attending to their tables, and a bar that did indeed have a huge beer selection. Our server, Kandace, came over promptly and took our beer order. We ordered the Sea Dog Wild Blueberry Wheat, a favorite of ours in the bottle on a hot summer afternoon. Vegas is pretty warm at 96 degrees, but the beer was thirstquenchingly good. Our server was surprisingly candid about menu options. We had intended on ordering a Thai Chicken pizza, but she steered us away from that. The menu was pretty extensive and extremely eclectic. We ordered, with Kandace’s guidance, two beef shortrib street tacos, shrimp lettuce wraps, poke appetizer, and truffle fries.

As we were waiting for our food to arrive, my husband and I commented on the decor. All of the lighting fixtures and bar surfaces at Red Rocks are made of some variation of veiny marble. It makes an interesting lighting display as the marble motif is mixed with iridescent baubles. The music at Yard House was not necessarily my taste. I like for dining music to be an accompaniment rather than have it fight for center stage. Yard House’s playlist was mostly classic rock by their definition, not so classic in my mind and quite loud. I did notice that the staff really works together. They were running each other’s drinks and food, and pre-bussing tables to clear dirties. In fact a different server arrived shortly with our food.

For the dining course, we ordered a Dunkle and a shorty of Rogue’s Hazelnut Brown Nectar. Both delicious and perfect with our food selections. The Yard House offers beer in a number of sizes, including shorties which are 8 oz. pours and perfect if you want to sample a few varieties of what is on tap. We started off with the street tacos. They were fairly small, as Kandace had warned, but full of yummy deliciousness. The short rib meat was ultra tender and well seasoned. Inside the taco was a green papaya salad that added just the right tang and brightness to make the taco explode in your mouth. They were delectable. Next time, I would probably just order the taco platter and get a couple of different varieties. The tacos were our favorite at the end of the night.

Next, we dove into the lettuce wraps. My husband introduced me to lettuce wraps on another trip. He loves that they are not as carby as a traditional taco and offer the crunch of the lettuce as an interesting texture twist. We went with the shrimp tacos with macadamia nuts, shredded purple cabbage, tofu, carrots and cilantro. The wraps came with a choice of dipping sauces: peanut, firecracker, and a Thai aoli. The firecracker was the winner. It had what tasted like a melding of fish sauce, hoisin, and maybe Serrano chilis finely diced. It had a nice slow back heat and brought alot of character to the lettuce wraps. The mixture for the wraps was actually pretty well seasoned, and I loved the tofu addition. It was not tasteless and firm, but nicely marinated and grilled. The lettuce leaves themselves were unwieldy. Some had little tears in them which made for messy eating. Overall, they were pretty tasty.

Then it was time to turn to the poke. I was most excited about this dish because I love a well done poke bowl. The fish actually looked nicely cut and was that deep blue-red color that fresh tuna is. It was mixed in with bamboo shoots, carrots and cilantro. I must say, I was disappointed. The poke was fresh-tasting but had little to no seasoning. It was crying for some acid. A little lime wedge would have done wonders. I took a couple of bites and let it go. The thing I could not stop eating was the truffle fries. We ordered these on a lark because it is all the rage to add truffle to mac and cheese and my husband and I always joke if you want to make something upscale, just add truffle. We have tried to find a truly outstanding version of the truffle mac to no avail. Mac and cheese is mac and cheese- good but should be relegated to the homey, comfort food station that it occupies. These fries though, were outstanding. they had fresh shaved Parmesan and chopped herbs mixed in which gave the fries that deep nutty flavor. The truffle oil added an earthy dimension to the fries that dispelled any need for salt, or the offered ketchup. They were not greasy or difficult to handle. They were stars of this meal.

Kandace noticed we had finished with our meal and came over to check on us. We decided to go full boat and order dessert. They offered a mini-dessert sampler platter that had a couple of the dishes we were interested in, so we ordered it. It consisted of a molten chocolate cake, a lemon pudding cake with raspberries, and a peach cobbler. I also ordered a Blue Moon shorty; I thought the citrus and coriander nuances of the beer would pair nicely with dessert. The desserts arrived on a clean, simple white plate. They actually looked quite stunning, unfortunately flavor did not follow. The molten lava cake was what you would expect, not anything exciting but pretty decent taste. It was a little overcooked so the outside was almost crispy. The lemon pudding cake that I was so excited about was undercooked. It was actually totally raw and inedible. I was sorely disappointed. My husband enjoyed the peach cobbler, but all in all dessert was a big miss. We went ahead and asked for our check.

Overall,The Yard House is a great place if you want to meet friends for a brew and maybe a light nosh. Their draft selection is impressive. The service was friendly and efficient. The food, unfortunately, is only mediocre. I will be curious to see what else Vegas has to offer for a curious pallette.


May The Fork Be With You!

Love that saying! Fork in the Alley never ceases to catch me, whether it is their AMAZING pizza or clever T-Shirts. My family decided to venture on out to FITA this weekend since all other plans rained out. We realized we had not been in some time and made way to rectify that.

Surprisingly, we sat right away, no wait, unusual on a weekend. They have finally prohibited smoking on the patio area, so seating is a’plenty. Our usual server was not working, so we settled in with one we did not know. My husband and I ordered the usual Blue Moon on draft with requisite orange slice, but sadly they no longer have it. Which prompted the thought, how long has it really been? The server suggested Starr Hill’s The Love as a fungible substitute. Now I love The Love with its crazy banana undertones, but it is not the coriander scented Blue Moon. We went with it anyway, but our server did not seem to know what we were talking about. She was under the impression that they were the same since they were unfiltered wheats. She left to procure our beverages and we began the conversation of what to order.

Our kids are very strange birds; they eat many unusual and interesting foods that most kids would not look at, but when it comes to pizza, cheese is the only topping. My husband and I, on the other hand, are always game for something new. So we always end up ordering two pizzas, one plain and one adventurous. Our server, in her curt and not-so-friendly manner, announced immediately that they were out of burgers and pork. This was before we even said anything or she brought us the waters and bar naps we had requested when she originally took our drink order. We were undeterred and determined to enjoy some FITA pizza. We decided to go for the Roma with italian sausage, sliced garlic, kalamatas, asiago and mozzarella. We also ordered a couple of house salads with the avocado vinaigrette (totally delicious, highly recommend) to get our greens in. We ordered the kids their regular cheese pizza and began the long wait.

About 30 minutes in, our food finally arrived. I thought our son was going to lunge at the pizza and swallow it whole, but he restrained himself, just barely. Despite the lack of service, the pizza was amazing. The crust is the best I have had in Roanoke. It is crispy and well-seasoned. It is cooked in a traditional brick oven that seems to make it less greasy and more airy. The sauce is delicious. It also has the perfect blend of herbs and has that homemade flavor. It was obvious the pizza had just come out of the oven because the steam was rolling off it and the cheese was all melty. So good! The Roma ended being a great choice. It had large chunks of fresh garlic, tangy kalamatas and the asiago gave it that nutty flavor that hard cheeses can impart. The cheese pizza was equally well-received. Even something as basic as plain cheese is elevated at FITA.

After some scarfing and discussion about the best pizza in Roanoke, we were ready for the perfect end, brick oven smores. I was a girl scout growing up and have lots of experience making these little delicacies over a roaring campfire, but until I came to FITA, I had never had one made in a pizza oven. They are addicting and I can never escape without partaking of one. The marshmallows have that crisp toast and are still all mushy inside. The chocolate is perfectly melted and the graham crackers are a crisp foil to the whole combination. It always brings me back to camping out in an open field, fire roaring, and giggling laughter piercing the air. I don’t know if it is the taste of the smores that I love or the memory it evokes. Either way, get a smore!

Even with the less than decent service, this trip to FITA was worth it. The pizza was delicious, the beer was thirst-quenchingly tasty, and the smores were divine. FITA also has a sister restaurant, Fork in the City. It is equally tasty, but slightly louder in the live music department. I still like FITA best for its great location, ambience and wealth of outdoor seating. Give it try and May the Fork be with you!

Fork In The Alley on Urbanspoon

In search of Mussels

Along with duck, one of my favorite dishes is well-prepared mussels. As Dr. Seuss might have written, I like them in a sauce, I like them on a plate, there is not a mussel that I hate. Since moving from the Gulf Coast, I have been hard-pressed to find comparable mussels, but venturing into Table 50 this weekend, I may have conquered my quest.

I have been to this downtown establishment before, but it has always been so loud that I could not carry on conversation with my fellow diners. I had a hankering for a nice glass of wine and a bowl of mussels, so I decided to give it another try. This time we reserved a table in the bar area in the hopes that it would not be so loud.

There was ample parking right in front of the restaurant and we were shown right to our table upon arriving. The hostess was extremely friendly and even told us about the specials. We settled in to look at the wine list and determine if the acoustics in the bar area were any better than the dining room. In fact, they were. I could hear my husband speak and there was not that overwhelming echo that happens in the dining room proper. This made me happy because I generally think the food is pretty good at Table 50.

Unfortunately, my blossoming happiness dissolved as we waited and waited for our server to come over. The bartender is responsible for the tables in the front of the restaurant, and usually that is fine because bartenders are generally consummate servers. This was not the case for us. The bartender stayed behind her bar chatting with her few customers and barely glanced at us. Finally, the hostess brought us water which prompted our server to head our way. We ordered a bottle of wine, the mussels (the ones that I had been dying to try), and the heirloom tomato and mozzarella plate. About 10 minutes later, the server came back and informed us that the wine we ordered was just in and they were chilling it down. I was skeptical, but my husband threw in that they probably had a chiller, and it would be ready quickly. Bless his heart; he is an optimist.

At this point, the server went back to her bar patrons, another bar table was sat and everybody not sitting at the bar was being ignored. About 15 minutes after she had left us, the server came back with a dripping bottle of wine. It had obviously just been shoved into some ice and upon touch was still warm. I then did something I never do, I sent the bottle back. I never do this because I feel it was my own fault for choosing something that I do not like and it is unfair to the restaurant to waste their stock. This was different. I had ordered a bottle and if she had conveyed the problems to me, I would have ordered something different to start with. We also went ahead and placed our dinner order not knowing when she would return.

Our appetizers arrived, and the mussels looked fabulous. They were a heaping bowl of nicely scrubbed, plump mussels floating in a delicious-looking broth. There were two architectural crostinis perched atop the mound of mussels, adding to the visual aesthetic. The tomato and mozzarella plate also looked fabulous. It had thick slices of plump tomatoes layered with fresh mozzarella and ribbons of fresh basil. On the bottom of the plate was a balsamic reduction and basil oil that was nicely sopped up with the tomatoes. The broth the mussels were in was divine. It had a silky, butteriness to it and a hint white wine and saffron. They were the mussels I had been longing for. Our wine arrived as we were diving in and it went well with our food choices.

Shortly after our appetizer plates were cleared, dinner arrived, or at least part of it. We had ordered the Seared Carolina Grouper with fire roasted polenta cake, lump crab, asparagus and cilantro bercy sauce, and two orders of the Duo of Duck with herbed spaetzle and fig gastrique. We ordered three plates, but only two arrived. The server explained that the kitchen had misread the ticket and the other duck was being cooked right then. Mistakes happen, so we went ahead and started with the first two.

The grouper was some of the best cooked fish I have had in Roanoke. It was flaky and tender. The asparagus was still slightly crisp as it should be served and the polenta cake was delicious. My husband and I sampled some of our daughter’s duck as we were waiting for our plate to arrive. The duo consisted of duck confit leg and seared duck breast. The duck, like the grouper, was expertly prepared. The spaetzle showed finesse also. It was firm and had flecks of herbs visible in its ribbons. The fig gastrique complemented the flavor of the duck perfectly. The portions were so large that we could have foregone the other duck order and almost did since we had just about finished the first plates when the other duck arrived. The server apologized and said the second duck would be on the house for our inconvenience and long wait. We thanked her and picked at the second plate. This time we tried the confit leg; it was wonderful. It had a crisp to the skin and the meat was uber-tender. We, unfortunately, had waited so long that we were too full to finish the dish.

Our server had not been back at any point to check on us, and now we began to stare down the bar in an effort to get her attention and close out. Finally, after we stacked our plates all up at the end of the table, she came over and asked how everything was. We requested our check. She came back fairly quickly with the check. At this point, we thought they were comping the second duck since it had been forgotten and took so long to arrive. We also had the debaucle with the wine at the beginning of dinner, so we checked our check to make sure it was correct. The server had given us a 50% discount on the duck and the new bottle of wine was $10 more than the original one we ordered. At $50 plus per person, we were not feeling much value for our money. We paid and left.

The other couple of times I have dined at Table 50, the service has been decent. I have never had such a bad dining experience that was completely the result of service. The food was delicious and the table at the front was comfortable and not too loud. However, I am not sure I will risk such a bad experience again just because the food is good. The mussels were delectable, the duck was divine, and on another occassion I had one of the most innovative appetizers I’ve ever experienced, but the sound issue is onerous and the service (at least this time) is ridiculous. If you do venture to Table 50, and they have the pulled pork with goat cheese in puffed pastry, get it. That is still one of the most memorable appetizers I have ever put in my mouth. The mussels are another rare find in Roanoke. All in all, I like the food but down the street is Horizon and I will probably just go there next time.

Table 50 on Urbanspoon